Given the well known adage, I probably shouldn't admit that I snapped up Nick Antosca's Midnight Picnic on the strength of its cover. The stark image of the extremely close pit bull filling the bottom third of an otherwise pitch-black cover really clicked with me. It seemed like an album cover for the greatest neo-metal Slint-influenced math-rock band that never existed. It's boss.
Happily, the book inside is pretty sweet as well.
Midnight Picnic takes a somewhat standard spook story plot and jolts into new life through a combo of an early game changing twist and a storytelling style that is refreshingly minimal and dryly witty.
Set in the semi-rural sprawl of West Virginia, the book focuses on Bram, a rudderless and emotionally stunted young man. Bram's wisp of a life is bracketed by two important, but crippled relationships. On one side is his absent father, gone several years overseas to bring fire and free markets to Iraq. On the other is his live-in, a depressive and self-destructive young woman who seems to view their relationship as a sort of starter suicide.
Bram's barely-a-life is overturned when a semi-retarded local boy finds the remains of a long dead boy in the woods not far from Bram's home. This leads the ghost of the dead boy, Adam, to Bram. The set up should be familiar: Adam needs Bram to help him find and punish the man who killed him. When Adam was young, he fled a school field trip group and got lost in the woods. He wandered until sundown and came across the camp of a unhinged homeless man on the lam from the Johnny Law. The homeless guy seemed nice enough at first, but the next thing you now he's got little Adam submerged in a local lake, standing on his chest and neck. But, with Bram's help, Adam plans to even the score. He knows where this homeless guy is living and he convinces-slash-compels through supernatural agency Bram to go to this guy's lean-to shack an burn it down with the man inside.
And then the game changing early twist.
Killing his killer is only the first part of Adam's revenge plan. He intends to chase his quarry into the fading blackness of purgatory – a sort of emotional, surreal endless suburbia of the damned fashioned from the memories of the dead – and continue his torment. As the story goes on, it is clear that Adam's target is more to be pitied than hated and Adam's drive to avenge himself knows no rational bounds. To continue torturing his murderer, he'll drag Bram and everybody he cares about into the unlife of the other side.
Antosca's writing style has a bare, almost minimalist feel that adds a sharp edge of dark humor to the supernatural and mystical elements of his plot. It reminds me of the on-the-road surrealism of Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart or Charles Portis's Dog of the South, but filtered through the "new weird" horror lens of Joe Hill or Jonathan Carroll. Antosca is also mature enough to know that a story about emotionally stunted characters still needs effective and impacting characterization. Zero affect characters are one thing, an unaffecting novel is another. Despite the ghosts, murderers, suicides, and hellhounds that populate the novel, the real horror is Bram's dawning awareness that he's made a terrible mistake, one that he might not be able to recover from simply by detaching himself from its consequences.
Antosca's nicest work comes in the characterization of Adam, the monster child whose unyielding need for revenge drives the plot. Adam isn't evil in any conventional sense. Like all children, he simply can't understand the world past his own limited emotional sphere. He lives in a black and white world, but those colors correlate to want/don't want rather than good/bad. Adam wonderfully illustrates Augustine's claim that the goodness of children is a function of the weakness of their limbs, not the strength of their conscience. That layer of characterization – Adam as egomaniacal mini-god – would be enough to drive the book, but Antosca goes further with it. Adam never really explains his need for Bram in a satisfying way. In fact, as I was reading the book, I felt this was a major weakness on the part of the text. Only later I realized that Adam didn't need Bram so much as he needed adult approval – even if it only came from a shiftless loser who was acting half out of supernatural compulsion. Even after death, the eternally child-like Adam needs his acts vouchsafed by a big person. It's a brilliant touch.
Midnight Picnic suffers slightly from the loose plotting inherent in any ghost tale. Once you put the inexplicable at the center of the tale, cause-and-effect, the most basic particle of plot, takes a real hit. The writer then has to work twice as hard at the atmospherics or fall back on genre expectation. Midnight Picnic takes the former route, but it's refreshingly modern minimalism keeps it from becoming a swamp of purple prose.
Midnight Picnic is a darkly sharp update on the haunted highway tale and the Southern gothic. Morbid and precise, moving and bleakly humorous, it's a real treat for anybody who likes their horror lit just a little off kilter.
MP streets in May. It's published by Word Riot Press (hat's off to the late Impetus Press, which folded before they could get Picnic out) and will run you about $16.00 in paperback.